This series on Shakespeare’s villains is being done in partnership with Finding Shakespeare - curating digital stories relating to Shakespeare’s life, work and times. Finding Shakespeare is the blog produced by the Collections Team here at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust– you can find out more about Don John on Thursday 28th July when they post their blog.
I have to admit that Don John is one of my favourite of Shakespeare’s villains, not as evil as Iago, or as charismatic as Richard III, he is a villain on a very human scale. Often played as a lonely outcast, in many productions I actually find myself feeling sympathy for him.
Don John is the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro the prince of Arragon. He is, when we first meet him, “out of measure sad” and when told to cheer up he says “I cannot hide what I am”. In his refusal to put on a charming face he is a real contrast to a villain like Iago who very deliberately pretends to what he is not. Don John claims that he would not want to put on polite airs and graces just to win favour. He claims it is better suited to his nature to be distained by all than to pretend to be charming and steal undeserved love. It is this element of humbleness about him that makes me sympathetic to him. After all, although a dark and villainous character he is following Polonius’s advice in Hamlet “To thine own self be true.”
Soon we get to know the cause of Don John’s bitterness. He resents the fact that he is restrained by his status as the illegitimate brother. He has decided not to “sing in his cage” in fact, he says if he was allowed freedom of speech and action he would not sing but ‘bite’. And bite he does. His teeth getting into a man, his brothers ‘right hand’, one Claudio who Don John feels has all the glory and favour that might be his if things were only different. He concocts a plot to make Claudio think that his betrothed wife Hero has betrayed him, causing Claudio to humiliatingly jilt her at the altar and almost destroying the happiness of everyone. Of course as this is a comedy his villainy is discovered, Claudio repents, Hero (astoundingly) accepts his apology and everyone lives happily ever after – apart from Don John who attempts to flee but is captured and ends the play being marched under armed guard back to Messina.
Now you might say that Don John has only himself to blame for his outcast position. He refuses to play the favour game, he refuses to be a flatterer and to say the right things to the right people, but still he resents Claudio for doing what he won’t do. Ironic of course, but oh so very human. Shakespeare, ever the observer of human nature, leaves us with the feeling that Don John is annoyed with his own inability to play the game – he jealously despises those who do play their cards right but refuses to even try to beat them at their own game.
Nothing excuses what he does of course, but it is worth noting the way in which his villainy and personality is paralleled in the play. Firstly Don John is not the only one to resort to trickery. Beatrice and Benedick’s friends use deceit to make them each believe the other is in love with them. Of course this works out for the best within the story line of the play, but could have been a tragedy if in fact their affection was not as genuine as their friends pretended. And it is not unreasonable to ask questions about the long term stability of a marriage based on a complex trick – especially given that we know Benedick has already jilted Beatrice once before. The main characters also trick Claudio into thinking that the jilted Hero is dead, this forces from him to a repentance and apology that may not otherwise have been forthcoming. Again it is not unreasonable to ask questions about their marriage, based as it is on trickery. Although what Don John does is wrong it serves to highlight flaws in other characters which puts Don John’s villainy into a spectrum of characters who appear to have some serious weaknesses. Should Claudio be so ready to believe his intended cheated on him? Why does he refuse to listen to her point of view? Why is he marrying someone he knows so poorly? Why does her own father readily disown her?
It is also worth noting that Don John is far from the only character in the story who wilfully ploughs his own furrow. Benedick stands out from his friends in his refusal to participate the usual romantic clap trap he tries it but concludes that he and Beatrice are too wise to woo peacefully. Beatrice stands out by refusing to fit the mould of submissive young lady in search of a husband. Like Don John She is warned that if she does not play the game she will be left out, but like Don John, refuses to be something she is not. So Don John is part of a play about outsiders, non-conformists and tricksters…. Shakespeare shows us that there is a fine line between villainy and humanity.
Here are some examples of Don John on stage…